“Mark making is central to art; it reaches back into prehistory to the caves of Lascaux, yet at the same time, children do it spontaneously.”
An interview of artist Cristy West, winner of the Best in Show, October Open Exhibit juried by Debbie Millman. Emma Gould of The Art League Gallery asked the questions.
“To get Best in Show is a big honor, and I am delighted. However, let it be known that the piece that won the award was passed over for an earlier show. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it. Thanks to everyone at the Gallery for keeping the shows going—and keeping us all on our toes!!”
How did “Remnants” evolve?
I completed “Remnants” last spring, and I believe there are three or four paintings underneath. I think these earlier layers add a certain element of depth and mystery. But that was far from my intention when I started. The painting just evolved intuitively.
“One of my early teachers at the Corcoran, Mindy Weisel, used to say that the primary qualification of an abstract painter was a tolerance for frustration.”
Can you tell me more about your working methods?
When I work, I get into a state of flux, almost a trance state—very focused. One of my early teachers at the Corcoran, Mindy Weisel, used to say that the primary qualification of an abstract painter was a tolerance for frustration. As I’ve grown older, I think I’ve become a lot more accepting of the ups and downs of the creative process. While working on a painting, I keep searching until something finally clicks, and I also have faith that eventually something will click.
How do you define “mixed media,” and how does that support your work visually?
I am constantly trying out new materials and tools, new techniques. I also use a lot of collage. I love the richness of texture that results from using different materials, and I like to explore the variety of marks that are possible with many drawing implements available in today’s market. Recently I have been exploring oil and cold wax and am excited about some of the effects I can achieve. But I think acrylic is my true medium since the rapid drying time allows me to work quickly and more spontaneously.
Marks seem like an essential element in this painting. What does mark-making mean to you?
I’m fascinated by marks—runes and petroglyphs, scripts from other languages, scribblings of children. All of these are inspiring. Paul Klee said, “to draw is to write,” and, in this sense, drawing can be seen as the speech of art. Mark making is central to art; it reaches back into prehistory to the caves of Lascaux, yet at the same time, children do it spontaneously.
Kids are so confident in whatever composition they are making. It’s incredible to see the lack of inhibition that they have with the materials they use. Something isn’t blocking their creating.
Exactly! To get into that child-like, playful state of mind—that is the trick! To loosen up, I often listen to music, especially jazz. Once I get going, the process begins to take over.
You’ve mentioned that you used to be a writer. Has that influenced your approach to painting?
I used to write—mainly short stories—and I also taught creative writing. I am also an avid journal-keeper. I think there is a universal impulse to put feelings into language, but sometimes words aren’t enough. Marks can have an authority that words often lack. For me, too, the habit of writing longhand may have translated into a more calligraphic quality in my paintings.
I find it compelling that you rework a lot of your old paintings.
Yes, I do rework a lot of my old paintings. But, I have also discovered that I don’t have to go through the frustration of making five failed paintings. Now, I simply lay down several base layers, and after that, it’s a question of responding to what is there—add, subtract, cover it up, bring it out again. It’s like a dance.
“…it has become instinctive to balance spontaneity and structure. But if I impose too much structure, then the painting goes dead.”
Do you have any favorite artists?
More than I can name! Recently I have been looking again at the work of Cy Twombly. His work is far more complex than it might seem at first. Likewise, in the case of “Remnants,” what might seem like random doodles have been arranged so that certain motifs—circles and triangles—are repeated and offset by that one lone rectangle. But all this just happened spontaneously.
The mark-making in your piece reflects a certain quality of struggle, but the elements don’t feel violent or heavy-handed. It feels similar to music, more soothing, thought-out, and composed, but keeping that playfulness in tune.
Thanks! I guess it has become instinctive to balance spontaneity and structure. But if I impose too much structure, then the painting goes dead.
So, where do you find your inspiration?
Gosh, so many things! Poetry, music, landscape, work by other artists, travels, everyday life. But most of all, I am inspired by the process of working. I love the challenge of abstraction. And I’m always learning new things—about how to paint better and also about myself. It’s really hard! More than anything else, abstract painting is, for me, an exercise in humility.